You might expect that “safeguarding” children would include preventing them from sexual exploitation. Yet a permissive attitude towards under age sexual activity has blinded responsible adults to the possibility that young girls are being coerced into sex. The consequences are horrific.
The Family Education Trust has recently drawn attention to some of the worst failings of government agencies in the Rochdale grooming case, in which seven under age girls were subjected to repeated sexual assaults. All the agencies which might have been expected to protect these girls persistently failed to step in – because they all assumed that the girls were consenting to sex, despite the fact that the men in question were all considerably older.
In the words of the Serious Case Review, carried out by Rochdale Social Services in the aftermath of the case:
‘The drive to reduce teenage pregnancy, whilst commendable in itself, is believed to have contributed to a culture whereby professionals may have become inured to early sexual activity in young teenagers. The culture from the top of organisations concerned with teenage pregnancy focused on meeting targets for the reduction of teenage conception and sexually transmitted diseases sometimes to the detriment of an alternative focus – the possibility that a young person has been or is at risk of harm and action other than clinical responses are required.’
One of the 14 year old girls in the Rochdale case asked her school nurse for a pregnancy test; it seems no questions were asked about her encounter. When the test proved positive, the girl was referred to an NHS service offering sexual health advice for young people, and an abortion was arranged. No discussion took place about the age of the baby’s father or indeed the girl’s own home background.
When a 13 year old girl told staff at a sexual health clinic that she had been forced to have sex with several men, who hit her if she refused, the clinic took the view that “she placed herself in these settings by choice” – and so they did not report her claims to the police or social services.
As so often now in child abuse cases, the fact that there are numerous different agencies involved also meant that no-one took individual responsibility.
Yet it is still disturbing to learn how a culture of permissiveness eroded common sense.
The chief constable of Manchester police, Sir Peter Fahy, sought to excuse his force’s failings on the grounds that “most of these girls did not regard themselves as victims”. This is a shocking indictment of 21st century attitudes to under age sex.
Every police constable, teacher, nurse, social worker or doctor who had contact with these girls and heard their stories should have automatically assumed that what they were doing was wrong. Under age sex is against the law. Full stop. If you start from this basis, you cannot arrive at the conclusion that a 13 year old girl has a “choice.”
Is it too much to hope that the Rochdale case review will bring about a change in attitudes? A utilitarian focus on reducing teenage pregnancy targets will do nothing to protect girls from harm. It needs to be accompanied by a clear moral message, conveyed by all in authority over children, that a child under 16 cannot “consent” to sex.